When did you first become interested in science?
Raised in the Swiss Alps, my parents instilled in me a keen appreciation for the arts, humanities and nature; values that motivate me to this day. I honestly did not find science particularly fascinating during my early schooling because the didactical methodologies I was subjected to were either excessively dry and unimaginative or the information relayed appeared simply uninspiring and lacking context. This changed drastically during my undergraduate studies when I discovered the foundations of molecular biology and realized I had a spontaneous facility understanding underpinnings of life at the biochemical and molecular level; away from draconian cat dissections, trivial titration experiments, the obvious limitations of Mendelian genetics, mind-numbing taxonomy, ancient Newtonian physics and erroneous atomic models I had been exposed to up to that point. Understanding the foundational principles behind experiments such as the 1952 “blender experiment” carried out by Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase led me to rediscover physics, chemistry and biology in a different light because I now had a framework that made sense to me in which I could reevaluate and contextualize these disciplines. The elegance in the approaches of molecular biology and bacteriology in particular were not only inspiring, but motivated me to learn more about the world at the subcellular level and life as a whole.
Why did you pick The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and your program and what year did you graduate?
In fairness, I did not pick the UT Health San Antonio; the microbiology department at UT Health San Antonio picked me. A visit by a UT Health San Antonio microbiology faculty attempting to recruit students into his lab and into the Ph.D. program during my senior year in college led me to visit UT Health San Antonio and accept a job offer as a research assistant in Dr. John F. Alderete’s laboratory. After a few years as a member of his research team, I applied to the microbiology Ph.D. program (now the Molecular Immunology & Microbiology discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program) because it felt like home, doing so just seemed like a natural progression. I had attended seminars religiously, familiarized myself with most faculty in the department, enrolled in doctoral courses and it seemed to me that the environment engendered by the former Department Chairman Dr. Joel B. Baseman was competitive, challenging and stimulating. I pursued my degree under the guidance of Karl E. Klose who at the time was a young, talented and highly motivated junior faculty; this sped up progress considerably. I enjoyed my life in the midst of the department immensely; which featured a blend of productive and caring faculty – several top tear researchers in their respective fields and others natural mentors. The list of weekly guest seminar speakers read like a “who’s who” of microbiology and the opportunities afforded to grow intellectually and scientifically within the department seemed boundless.
Tell me more about your career path.
After earning my Ph.D. from the UT Health San Antonio, I was accepted to carry out my postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School in the laboratory of Dr. John Mekalanos. Subsequently, I began applying for faculty positions at universities in South Texas where I had felt the most comfortable since moving to the United States. I was offered a tenure-track faculty position at University of Texas at Brownsville; there I found a climate of excitement about establishing research infrastructures and programs that appealed greatly to me. I have stayed at the same institution since; regrettably in 2015 UT Brownsville was abolished and absorbed into the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where I continue to carry out my functions.
Tell me about your current career, what do you do?
My professional activities include a modest teaching load (typically, a senior undergraduate or graduate course a semester), I lead an NIH-funded research lab which at this time consists of two Masters, one Ph.D. student and one senior scientist that address the evolution, pathogenesis and environmental life style of pathogenic Vibrios. As Associate Department Chair, I manage operations of the biology department on the Brownsville campus and as Chair of the Institutional Biosafety Committee I am involved in permitting all research with recombinant DNA and potentially harmful biological agents that takes place at UTRGV.
What is a day like in your job?
No two days are the same, although there are some constants, the variables are numerous. I manage a work load that entails long-term and short-term projects. This means that I parse out my time managing day-to-day emergencies and numerous short-term requests in either of the areas of activity mentioned above while trying to make daily progress on longer-term projects such as manuscripts, directing experiments and other larger projects. I enjoy the freedom to prioritize my work and advise junior faculty to do the same by “writing their own job description” through the identification of niches based on their strengths and interests (which may change over time). I feel somewhat ambiguous that I personally do not conduct experiments in the lab any longer. On the other hand, my work days have become structured far differently than they were as a graduate student or postdoc.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
The ever-growing bureaucracy burden, the transition into “everything on-line” (which is designed as a single shoe expected to “fit all”) accompanied with dwindling approachable administrative support for faculty and students, the changing university paradigm converting academic institutions into businesses and the institutional conflicts of interests that arise from this, the disproportionate explosion of upper administrative positions, the overregulation and increased rigidity of the academic structure are the combined cause for quite a bit of recurring frustration and chronic disappointment.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I am motivated by the joy of discovery; nothing in my job tops having contributed to a meaningful discovery, might that be by chance or from long hours over a span of sometimes even years of analysis, discussion and criticism. I enjoy communicating scientific ideas or notions in writing, through presentations both to professional and broader base audiences – it’s the few moments I stand on “my little soap box.” I also value my interactions with graduate students in the laboratory, colleagues, friends and collaborators elsewhere and a few like-minded colleagues on site. The ability to exchange ideas and then being able to enact them by designing experiments and testing hypotheses remains a priceless privilege that has kept me in the profession in spite of the numerous changes academia has undergone that have detracted from some of the pleasure. In time, through my administrative roles I have learned to appreciate the more “human side” of my activities, I enjoy being able to assist and support staff, faculty and students and have learned to appreciate the realization that my actions have been beneficial to individuals in one way or another; something I strive to in all administrative decisions I make.
What has been your proudest achievement?
As far as my career is concerned, facing a question as this one after nearly 30 years of professional life, one realizes that, as researchers we contribute minute bits of knowledge here and there to a collective effort. Occasionally, someone happens to be in a position to capitalize from these collections of tidbits and use them to make a quantum leap forward. I no longer hold such ambitions, no matter what love I have for anything, professional or not, my aspirations are modest: to enjoy a dignified life style, hold a stimulating and rewarding position that affords me sufficient personal and professional freedom, be in a position to continuously learn, benefit from stimulating company and exchange of ideas, sharing a life with like-minded friends and loved ones, being surrounded by nature in contact with animals and sufficient financial independence to afford the things I enjoy in my personal life. In summary, to have “fun” in the process of existence while meeting my fundamental and even some ancillary needs. This accomplishment ranks among my proudest achievements beyond whatever tidbit I might have contributed to science that will have a lasting impact.
How did the education you got at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio prepare you?
Having carried out my postdoctoral work at Harvard after graduation, it became clear that the UT Health San Antonio microbiology department during the 90’s was modeled closely after the Harvard academic model; I would go as far as saying that the former microbiology department was like a “Harvard enclave.” What made the experience so special was the intellectual intimacy the department fostered in those days which was driven by a microbiology-centric vision. The physical and administrative infrastructures, the schedule of activities, faculty expertise, the collaborative spirit, freedoms and flexibility granted, administrative support, the open-door policies – every aspect of daily life, at least, how I perceived it, was designed to foster an extremely free flowing, dynamic, interactive and stimulating environment conducive to “think, breath, and eat science.” This “ambience” made it extremely easy to succeed by submerging oneself in science completely. I credit outstanding faculty recruitment and a visionary departmental leadership for this. While at the UT Health San Antonio, I lived nearly entirely within one mile of campus. I was able to walk from my apartment to the lab in less than 15 minutes, get my exercise on campus during breaks, eat there or nearby, carry out experiments afterhours, weekends and overnight as needed – completely free and unhindered to do so. This situation facilitated commitment and success dramatically; it was very easy to be submerged, nothing stood in the way. This overall sense of what it takes to establish a productive “scientific culture” is the most important form of preparation I received at the microbiology department of the UT Health San Antonio; because it includes all aspects required for a successful career in science: the meaning of commitment, motivation and work ethic, skillful personal interactions, sacrifice and self-confidence, written and verbal communication skills, acquisition of technical skills, independent learning, mentoring and guidance, even down to formalities; I absorbed everything like a sponge. To make an analogy, these individual factors are like single musical instruments that when played together can be made to sound like a symphony. Having experienced this and the recognition of how this can come to be is the best preparation I could have hoped for.
What are your favorite memories at UT Health San Antonio?
As previously mentioned, the life style I enjoyed submerged entirely in scientific thoughts is my favorite memory. I will never forget how the last thoughts I had before falling asleep reanalyzed every experiment I had done during the day and the first thoughts in the morning where those of curiosity about how it all turned out. I could not wait to get ready to walk across the street to find out what I would learn from my experiments that day; this persisted over a span of many years. I recall numerous “adventures” and events that took place during my time there that still resonate as meaningful, but the stability, safety and freedom I felt during my stay at UT Health San Antonio integrate a continuum of memories that collectively make the whole experience priceless. Mentioning an anecdote or two could not do the feelings I have about the entire experience justice. I could not have been more fortunate to have shared those years of my life during that window of time in that environment.
What would you tell a current student interested in your career? Any advice for life in general?
I do tell them several things, among them: 1) stop “studying”, start learning, 2) question everything, especially yourself, don’t take anything for granted, 3) learn how to answer your own questions whenever possible, 4) one hour at the library (I guess that would be PubMed these days) can save you a month at the bench, 5) submerge yourself entirely and commit every aspect of your life to your goal, which thereby must become your passion, 6) never forget to have fun in the process – if it isn’t fun, it isn’t the right thing for you, do something else, 7) learning through hands-on practice is considerably more effective than “book learning” alone, 8) be selective as to whom you trust to guide you through the chosen path, 9) learn from your mistakes, you’ll make plenty, they represent valuable learning lessons, 10) be patient with and learn to forgive both yourself and others, and finally; 11) don’t worry too much about the future, because if you do all these things, everything will fall into place spontaneously.
What are some options that a graduate student can do to gain experience in your field now as a graduate student?
I benefitted considerably from working in the laboratory as a research assistant before transitioning into the Ph.D. program because I learned very precisely the expectations, how to meet them and had the fortune to acquire experimental and intellectual skill sets that became critical during my doctoral studies and beyond. I therefore advise others to secure an entry-level position or a research-intensive Master’s program in the field they intend to pursue ahead of committing academically to a career path they may not exactly understand what the life style entails.
What do you like to do outside of work? Any hobbies?
I play numerous musical instruments, built a dedicated recording studio/building where I rehearse regularly with groups of musicians. I share my life with horse and dog companions. I enjoy horseback trail riding and value my interactions with my animal friends, have been a practitioner of natural horsemanship for decades. I enjoy sailing, swimming, scuba diving and camping in nature. After having relinquished playing basketball and volleyball for orthopedic reasons I focused on tennis, table tennis and riding bicycles. I also enjoy reading, philosophy, the arts, history, gardening, cooking, good company and all aspects of home repair.